Sunday, November 27, 2005


Big Pack Attack

It's make or break time for British booksellers. The Waterstone's and Ottakar's merger -- the fears over which have been previously discussed here and here on this blog -- is going before the UK's Office of Fair Trading.

Today's Observer reports that "this week could be decisive for the future of the book trade":

Scott Pack is already seen by many as the most powerful man in the books trade. As head buyer for Waterstone's, he decides which books the country's largest chain will stock and promote. His decisions can make or break an author's career. On Friday, his influence is set to extend yet further. The Office of Fair Trading is due to decide whether to refer Waterstone's planned takeover of Ottakar's bookshops to the Competition Commission. If the £96.4 million deal is given the go-ahead, Waterstone's parent company, HMV, will control at least 23.6 per cent of the British book trade.

Leading publishers and authors are making a last-ditch attempt this weekend to head off the deal, which some fear will mean too much power being concentrated in the hands of Pack and Alan Giles, chief executive of HMV. 'Scott Pack is believed to be pretty much all-powerful in deciding which books are promoted,' said Mark Le Fanu, general secretary of the Royal Society of Authors. 'His decisions are then rolled out through the country. Publishers are in thrall to him, and authors' careers are dependent on his decisions.'

The biographer Michael Holroyd is one of the writers who have come out against the merger. 'Waterstone's choose about 5,000 books a year and promote them so that they sell tremendously - at the expense of other books,' he said. 'If a book isn't taken up within a month, it is replaced. Ottakar's, on the other hand, gives books more time to take off. There are two categories of books - the tortoises and the hares. If this deal goes ahead, we will end up with all hares and no tortoises. Books that could become classics in 20 years' time are being threatened.'

It's a story that gets curioser and curioser when you see in the Independent a few weeks ago a report that "The OFT has been furnished with all manner of evidence on Waterstone's market position - including, it is rumoured, a tape of controversial chief buyer Scott Pack talking to a publisher."


Toys In The Attic

Lately my son has taken to bolting up to the attic the moment I turn my back; when I trudge up there after him, I find him already galloping back down the steps, humming happily as he carries off some curio randomly grabbed from one of the boxes. It's his equivalent of hitting the flea markets.

Today's attic find: a 60th anniversary pack of playing cards issued by Penguin in 1995.

It's a lovely little deck -- anything designed after old Penguin paperback would be -- and each of the 52 cards features a different old cover from the 1930s and 40s. I actually remember where I bought the deck: on Canongate in Edinburgh, at R Somerville, an store dedicated entirely to rare and unusual playing cards. Sadly, after 18 years there, Somerville recently packed up and moved to France.

But for the card pictured above, at least, there's a happy ending. Aside from being a great title, I remembered Nick Hornby talking up Hangover Square in his Believer column a year ago. And guess what? Hangover Square is coming back in a new edition by Europa Books next month....


Best Book Review Headline of 2005

...goes hands-down to The Stranger and its new review of Anne Rice's latest.

Saturday, November 26, 2005


Transcendentalism 4 Sale -- Cheap!

It's not often you can get a original piece of Transcendentalist art for the price of a used Hyundai, but here's someone selling a Christopher Cranch landscape for $6500:

Given that Poe once lauded Cranch as, ahem, "the least objectionable of the Boston group," I'd recommend that the NY Public Library buy it -- if only it wasn't so busy deaccessioning its 19th century art...


Blame Her For Mushy Peas...

The oldest known cookbook in the English language has turned up in Derbyshire, reports the BBC:

Her Cookery Book, written in 1742 by Mary Swanwick, includes a range of unknown dishes such as squichanary pye and Stoughtons drops. The book, which also includes instructions for stewed calf's head, was donated to the Derbyshire Record Office by an anonymous Stockport man.

Archivists are still trying to decipher much of its faded handwriting. Staff at the records office said they had an older recipe book, though nowhere near as comprehensive as Mary Swanwick's, which features about 100 dishes. Among the ingredients needed for squichanary pye are a type of parsnip not commonly available now, spices, candied oranges and lemon and white wine.

There's no links up for it yet, but plans have been announced for the book to be reprinted in 2006....


A Heck of a Job, Brownie

Sir Thomas Browne's 1658 work Urne Buriall was one of the closest models for The Trouble With Tom, and the source of the book's opening epigraph: "Who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered?”

Until now, though, you couldn't find a cheap copy of it. But today's Guardian carries word that Penguin has released a splendid little £3.99 edition. Nicholas Lezard explains:

Urne-Burial was conceived in response to the archaeological discoveries that helped to inaugurate a new era of antiquarianism in England, and begins as a meditation on the burial practices of the ancients. As Browne points out, "men have lost their reason in nothing so much as their religion ... the religion of one seems madnesse unto another".... you'll soon find that, like Hamlet, it is full of quotes. "A Dialogue between two Infants in the womb concerning the state of this world, might handsomely illustrate our ignorance of the next"; "the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying"... Browne is a miniaturist, an elegant raiser of ideas and a provoker of ideas in others: it was in a long note made in his copy by Coleridge that the very word "marginalia" was invented.
Buy this one and shelve it right next to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. You'll have to get it off Amazon UK, though: there's still no US edition. (What gives, Penguin?)


Ben Who?

Last month U Penn Press released volumes one and two of JA Leo Lemay's ginormous 7 volume biography of Benjamin Franklin, the work that basically his entire scholarly life has been leading up to. It has been received, so far, to virtually zero press coverage.

That silence is the sound of critics quietly leafing through the volumes and taking notes for upcoming reviews.... right?

Sunday, November 20, 2005


Free Parking at Barnes & Noble!



Stubble Hearts Banksy

One of my favorite recent book purchases was from Quimby's a couple weeks ago: it's Cut It Out, a collection of public stencilworks by guerilla artist Banksy. You may recall the recent Times piece on his practice of sneaking his own parodic artworks onto the walls of the Met. Banksy's own website includes this fine clipping from the Telegraph:

A lot of Cut It Out is equally cheeky or provoking, but some of it is unexpectedly moving or just flat-out inspired. And at $11, it's just about the best deal going in clever art books...

Saturday, November 19, 2005


Le Censeur, C'est Moi.

A pretty shocking publishing item from France has barely any media traction yet, but it really should. Yesterday's International Herald Tribune reports:

A glamorous Frenchwoman who divides her time between New York and Paris, upset about a forthcoming biography, has asked that her estranged husband intervene and convince the publisher to cancel the book's release. This could be an item for a society column if the name of the woman were not Cécilia Sarkozy, whose husband, Nicolas, is the interior minister of France.

According to an account published Friday in Le Parisien, a French daily, Sarkozy summoned the publisher, Vincent Barbare of Editions First, to his ministry office on Nov. 9, at the height of the rioting that engulfed France this month. The following day, Le Parisien said, the publisher called the author of the book, "Cécilia Sarkozy: Between Heart and Reason" and told her it would not be released.

Asked about the report, Nicolas Sarkozy's spokesman, Frank Louvrier, would neither confirm nor deny that the meeting took place. "We won't be making any comments on this," Louvrier said. "We have more important subjects to deal with - terrorism, the recent urban violence, et cetera."

A spokeswoman for Editions First also declined to comment on the reported meeting but said the release of the book, which had been scheduled for Thursday, had been "deferred" and that no new release date had been set.

How "deferred"? A report inside the Guardian yesterday says that "According to some reports, he had the first 25,000 copies pulped and the text deleted from the firm's computers." That's bad enough, but even worse when you see the IHT's reminder of just who Sarkozy is:

The suppression of the book, if confirmed, would inevitably raise questions about Sarkozy's use of his office. He is a leading contender to succeed President Jacques Chirac in 2007 and one of the most popular politicians in the country.....


Alas, There Are No Limericks

The Times of London covers the recent Selected Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647 - 1680), who traditionally holds the laurel of being the most obscene poet ever.

How obscene? Let's sit down and get comfortable, shall we?

Much wine had passed, with grave discourse
Of who f- - -s who, and who does worse
(Such as you usually do hear
From those that diet at the Bear),
When I, who still take care to see
Drunkenness relieved by lechery,
Went out into St James’s Park
To cool my head and fire my heart.
But though St James has th’ honor on ’t,
‘Tis consecrate to prick and c- -t.
There, by a most incestuous birth,
Strange woods spring from the teeming earth;
For they relate how heretofore,
When ancient Pict began to whore,
Deluded of his assignation
(Jilting, it seems, was then in fashion),
Poor pensive lover, in this place
Would frig upon his mother’s face;
Whence rows of mandrakes tall did rise
Whose lewd tops f- - - -d the very skies.

Why doesn't Garrison Keillor ever read this guy? Sheesh.


Scrabble: The Anti-Drug

Nicholas Blincoe in today's Telegraph relates an amusing tale of Graham Greene:

The playwright Michael Meyer travelled around the world with Greene in the 1950s. Greene had promised opium-smoking and other tropical decadences, so Meyer was disappointed to find that Greene had packed a portable Scrabble board. The nightly Scrabble games almost ruined their friendship. The problem, according to Meyer, was that Greene's spelling was "deeply dubious", and the pair did not have a dictionary. During a stay in Tahiti, Greene produced the words "zeb", which he claimed was an Elizabethan word for "cock", and "quoign" which he insisted was Shakespearean, quoting: "Yon castle's quoign that Duncan's spirit haunts."

Meyer thought the line was as dubious as Greene's spelling and, in the sultry Tahitian nights, tempers frayed. The pair were still arguing when they reached San Francisco, months later. They ran straight from the ship to a second-hand book store and found a dictionary. The word was in, spelled "quoin", which satisfied Greene, though as Meyer pointed out, "quoin" would not have landed on a triple letter score.

Speaking of such things, while in Seattle I ran into Vinnie Wilhelm, a recent grad of the Writers' Workshop and one of my old Scrabble sparring partners. Vinnie's mulling a book idea that you will certainly be reading between hardcovers in a couple years or so -- it's pretty great -- but in the mean time, you'll just have to settle for his recent interview with Daniel Alarcon:

Vinnie: I'd like to begin with oral sex. In "City of Clowns," the second story in your collection, you provide one of the most compelling instances in recent literature of a man performing cunnilingus on a woman who is wearing stilts. I think we'd all love to hear whatever you feel comfortable sharing about the genesis of this scene.

Daniel Alarcón: In Lima I briefly dated a girl who owned a pair of stilts. I can't really say much more about it, except to add that I write fiction and have an active imagination.

Sunday, November 13, 2005


Please, Mister, Buy This Book?

After giving a reading in Boston on Thursday night at the Brookline Booksmith, I perused the children's book section for a while, buying for my toddler an utterly charming board book edition of Ruth Bornstein's 1976 tale Little Gorilla. But there was another book back there that startled me with its power: Seonna Hong's newly released Animus, a moving picture book about a girl spooked by a mean dog in her neighborhood.

I'm not sure I'd really call Animus a children's book -- if it is, then you have one spooky kid. But it's one of the most elegantly realized moving picture books I've ever seen: if you care about books as beautiful objects, then this is surely one to get. You can see its artwork from this Hong exhibition last year in Manhattan's Gallery 5BE, and Hong's home page is here.


Poe Conks Out

Just back from another week on the road, and while in NYC I was lucky enough to examine some splendid stuff in the Park Ave. bookshop of James Cummins. One scandalously entertaining item: a first edition embodiment of Edgar Allan Poe's plagiarism. And no, it's not a book of Gothic tales or poetry. It's a book on... um, seashells.

Here's the description from item #74 of the latest Cummins catalogue:

POE, Edgar Allan. The Conchologist's First Book: A System of Testaceous Malacology arranged expressly for the use of Schools.... Philadelphia: Published for the Author by Haswell, Barrington and Haswell [1839]....

Poe was hired by the publishers to produce an American version of Captain Thomas Brown's The Conchologist's Text-Book, a popular English textbook and standard in that field. Poe's The Conchlogist's First Book is mostly taken fropm Brown's text, without any credit. A charge of plagiarism was set against Poe. This was the only American publication of Poe's which went into a second edition during his lifetime.

The price? 1,750 clams.... (ahem)....


And Not Once Do I Roll The Letter "R"

I get interviewed on Italian radio.

It's around minute 7:00 of the show -- and can you guess whether I'd just woken up?

Oh yes you can....

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Ghost Signs

Yesterday's Times had a wonderful article on fading painted signs. If you've ever lived in a city, you know the sort:

Surprisingly, these old signs are not covered under any preservation laws:

The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, however, has decided that it will not protect what it calls "ghost signs," according to Diane Jackier, a spokeswoman. "The commission protects architectural features and the commission does not consider the painted signs a significant feature," she said. No one has applied for a landmark designation for a painted sign in years, Ms. Jackier said.

Signs that are threadbare but still visible recall workhorse department stores like Gimbels and Hearns and men's clothing shops like Rogers Peet. They evoke a time when apartment buildings like the Warwick Arms at 101 West 80th Street trumpeted ULTRA MODERN APARTMENTS with GLASS SHOWER ENCLOSURES and when bowling alleys like McLEAN BOWL-O-DROME, which opened in 1942 along the Yonkers border, lured customers by boasting of air-conditioning.

Occasionally development actually serves to preserve these signs by walling them off: when I was living in San Francisco, I remembering seeing one large storefront torn away during a renovation to reveal an ancient painted sign underneath for -- oddly enough -- Coney Island Hot Dogs.

Someone should compile a book of these signs. Has someone compiled a book?...


Pat Boone Recommends The Moderate Course

Some fine strange old books were brought out for Tuesday's literary revival at Quimby's in Chicago. After I kicked things off with a selection from one of my favorite self-published memoirs, Looney Tombs: Confessions of a Small-Town Funeral Director's Son by David Goulet, Claire Zulkey shared a turn of the century muckraker about Chicago's trade in "white slavery" (i.e. naughty, naughty prostitution), and Elizabeth Crane read from Jerome K Jerome's 1889 collection Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. Jerome, as it happens, is just about my favorite writer ever -- his narrative voice in Three Men in A Boat really influenced my own for Sixpence House.

But I don't think any of us could quite top this: Nathan Rabin of The Onion bringing in Pat Boone's 1958 teen advice bestseller Twixt Twelve and Twenty, which was the number 1 bestseller in nonfiction for 1959. (Some context: this was just after On The Road came out. If I may hazard a guess, I would say the audience crossover between those two books was precisely... zero.)

Rabin interviewed Boone for The Onion a couple years ago, and so what better guide to lead us through passages like:

Now that I'm the father of four little girls I could wish that there were less kissing and more scrabble and parchesi. Do you know why?

Not for the usual negative reasons, although I go along with those. We all know that indiscriminate kissing, dancing in the dark, hanging around in cars, late dates at this early stage can lead to trouble. And that you miss a lot of fun with the nicer play-by-the-rules crowd. There is absolutely no need to rush clumsily into things that will have such beautiful meaning later on.

But I recommend the moderate course for another very positive reason. Kissing is not a game. Believe me! It means a lot more than just a pleasant pastime, a forfeit, or a test of popularity. I can tell you for sure that if you get to thinking of it that way, you're dead wrong. A kiss is a beautiful expression of love ~ real love. Not only that, it is a powerful stimulus of emotion. Kissing for fun is like playing with a beautiful candle in a roomful of dynamite! And it's like any other beautiful thing ~ when it ceases to be rare, it loses its value and much of its beauty. I really think it's better to amuse ourselves in some other way. For your own future enjoyment I say go bowling, or to a basketball game, or watch a good TV program (like the Pat Boone Chevy show!), at least for a while.

Sure, go and ahead and laugh, but... um... actually, yeah, just go ahead and laugh.


Magical Histamine Tour

Despite touring with a head cold, I managed to enunciate to a more or less comprehensible degree in this radio interview about The Trouble With Tom last week on Seattle's NPR station KUOW...

Saturday, November 05, 2005


Ramona the Homeowner

Get out a very small ice-cream bowl, because Weekend Stubble has a little scoop for you. While searching through some Portland property listings -- no, do not read too much into that -- Mrs. WS noticed that Beverly Cleary's old house is up for sale.


Doesn't look like the press has picked this item up yet, as the info is buried within the agent's flyer for the house. The bigger surprise is that at $319,000 the place is actually pretty cheap for the neighborhood it's in. I guess literary history doesn't add as much value to a house as granite countertops....


Trashcan Full of Books

Among the Guardian's brief book reviews is one you can almost hear the pitch for -- in fact, my guess is that the title alone sold it: 101 Illnesses You Don't Want to Get.

Oh, just imagine the editor at Cassell rubbing his hands in glee when he heard that one.

You know who should partner to publish it in the US? The Discovery Health Channel. It'll go along nicely with such family classics as 160 Pound Tumor (a show invariably followed by another titled 200 Pound Tumor) and Trashcan Full of Skin.



Hey, New Yorker: what's with the umlauts?

What kind of idiot puts an umlaut in "reënact"? That should have been my reaction when I found the word in a New Yorker film review, but, because the New Yorker is famously tough on spelling, I began to doubt myself, even to wonder what kind of idiot doesn't know that "reënact" requires an umlaut?...

Oddly, none of my dictionaries has the word at all, which suggests it does not exist. So why do I know what it means?

My computer's spell-check allows "re-enact", so I am advocating that. My decision is final. I have no idea why the New Yorker prefers "reënact" - but I suspect that they are Motörhead fans.

Hmm. No sleep 'til Park Slope?

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